Bill Cash is the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee and MP for Stone.
We do not have to be enthusiastic advocates of Vladimir Putin’s policies to recognise that this entire Ukrainian crisis was avoidable. Nor to recognise that the Crimea – handed over by Khrushchev within the Soviet Union to Ukraine in 1954 – has been and remains a vital national security and defence interest for Russia, including the Black Sea and its fleet for centuries. The European Union’s Eastern Partnership and Association Agreement were clearly anticipated to be Ukraine’s stepping stone to membership of the European Union, and probably of NATO as well. On both counts the EU has pursued a remarkably naïve foreign policy.
There has undoubtedly been fault on both sides, and the best thing is to be realistic. Ukraine itself is said to be in such financiall turmoil that it would require a bailout of something of the order of $35 billion over the next two years – much of which would presumably fall on British taxpayers. But the original fault lies with the EU and the way in which it has gone about all this.
Whilst not arguing that there should not have been some form of political cooperation and trade – because they are essentials – a key problem has been the manner in which the EU Eastern Partnership and Association Agreement was pursued, and the terms on which EU negotiation was presented and the EU attitude towards Russia – all of which was compounded by the refusal to attend Sochi.
There has to be a rational and statesman-like way of dealing with the Ukrainian situation and to guarantee that it becomes a truly democratic country. At present, its interim Government is not even elected, and yet we hear extravagant claims of democracy and the rule of law. Both are conspicuously absent on all sides.
For example, when the new interim unelected government was set up, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law that would have stripped the Russian language of its special status in the constitution – despite this having been pivotal to Crimean voters and interests during the 1991 referendum on Ukrainian independence. Oleksandr Turchynov, the new President, then vetoed the law that would have demoted the Russian language, in a move aimed at reducing the hostility of Russian-speakers in the east of the country.
While Crimea has organised its own referendum in what seems to be a very a short space of time (lthough it has apparently been enthusiastically received by the majority of the population who are Russian speaking), it is taking place in a very febrile atmosphere which is far from perfect.
I have been gravely concerned about the dismal failure by the EU over the last several years properly to take into account the sensibilities of Russia in relation to the Crimea and the Ukraine in their relentless pursuit of the Eastern Partnership and the Association Agreement – as I said in the Commons last week,
As I indicated in my question to the Foreign Secretary last Monday, we must recognise that the EU’s ambitions for the Eastern Partnership and the Association Agreement over the past 18 months have borne some responsibility for the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. This was something of an understatement.
I went on to say that a senior EU diplomat last November even proposed that the Ukrainian leadership would have to come to the EU on its knees if they did not do what it wanted.
We even have one of the architects of the policy, Michael Leigh, now at the German Marshall Fund, arguing that –
“This was misconceived from the outset and I was one of the culprits..In retrospect, the EU made a number of serious mistakes. It was not necessary or appropriate to present Ukraine with an incredibly demanding Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.”
It is ironic that the Foreign Secretary himself should have used the word “miscalculation” in his statement last week (and repeated it on the Andrew Marr programme last Sunday), regarding Russia itself. Clearly, this crisis has to be managed with far more statesmanship than has been apparent over the last year. It is profoundly unwise and dangerous to provoke Russia in this way, given its vital national interests.
Seeking to drive the Russian bear into the back of a cave and then prodding it with spears is bound to have dreadful results. Sadly, travel bans and asset freezes and even economic sanctions will not address the underlying problem. It seems clear that Crimea will revert to Russia.
On the question of history, it was one of the greatest British statesmen of the nineteenth century, John Bright, who demanded peace during the Crimean war in a series of memorable speeches in 1854-1855, stated:
“Russia is a great Power, as England is, and in treating with her you must consider that the Russian Government has to consult its own dignity, its own interests, and public opinion, just as much at least as the Government of this country.”
The present situation, on all sides, is by no means acceptable or satisfactory, but the EU must recognise that it bears a disproportionate degree of responsibility for the crisis which could have been avoided. It is important to remember how this came about. As Euractiv reported a few days ago, at the EU summit held last week, EU leaders decided to sign “the political chapters” of the Association Agreement with Ukraine “soon”, before the Ukrainian Presidential elections scheduled in May.
Yet those same EU leaders had promised President Putin to overcome “different interpretations and misunderstandings” over this agreement. The EU has told them one thing – and done another. A Commission spokesperson has further repeated that the heads of state and government of the EU would sign “as a matter of priority” and “very shortly” the political chapters. We are not only moving away from resolving the situation – the European Union are compounding the problem and provoking Russia even further.
The Association Agreement is certainly not just about free trade. According to the draft Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, on which it would appear the political chapters were re-endorsed at the EU meeting last week, it contained the following stated aims:
In Article 7, “…promote gradual convergence in the area of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) …”.
In Article 10, “…increasing the participation of Ukraine in EU-led civilian and military crisis management operations as well as relevant exercises and training activities, including those carried out in the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).”
“… explore the potential of military-technological cooperation. Ukraine and the European Defence Agency (EDA) shall establish close contacts …”
In the interests of stabilising the situation, and engaging in meaningful and realistic discussions, the EU should surely step back from the Eastern Partnership and the Association Agreement in order to reduce tensions and clear the table for renewed discussions with Russia, whilst recognising the vital national interest the Crimea represents to Russia.
This is not appeasement – this is realism. Whatever the rights and wrongs on both sides, one could think of many examples in which the UK, US or Germany - or indeed any other country - would, if faced with a threat to its national interests equivalent to that facing Russia regarding the Crimea, would react in a similar way.